Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A descendant of Puritans who at one point converted to Catholicism, Lowell was a student of the classics who was fascinated by ancient Rome. He saw history as a continuing process; Near the Ocean (1967), the collection in which “Waking Early Sunday Morning” first appeared, contains original poems by Lowell as well as his translations of works by Horace, Juvenal, and others. In an introductory note, Lowell speaks of “the greatness and horror of [Rome’s] empire,” then adds, perhaps slyly, “How one jumps from Rome to the America of my own poems is something of a mystery to me.” Actually, there is little mystery in the metaphorical connection Lowell draws between Rome near the end of its empire and the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century. In “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” Lowell evokes a sense of living in “fallen” times, referring to both the fall of an empire and humanity’s original fall from grace. The poem is thus one observer’s reflections upon a particular time and place as well as a metaphorical recasting of ancient myth.

Lowell was not only a poet steeped in history but also a poet of his times. During the 1960’s, much of his work reflected his political concerns and moral beliefs; poems in For the Union Dead (1964) touch upon ethnic segregation and nuclear war, and Near the Ocean continues this mingling of public issues with the exploration of private concerns Lowell had...

(The entire section is 485 words.)